Stall: "This isn't an honest reaction to public opinion. It’s more of a reaction to political popularity--not to the responsible needs of the people."
By Tracy Dang, Managing Editor
The Sealy News
Residents of Austin County and surrounding rural areas will not have to worry about a possible 1,200-foot corridor going through historic farmlands that have been in the family for generations.
The Texas Department of Transportation announced it will only consider expanding existing highways in future proposals of the Trans-Texas Corridor/Interstate-69 project.
“Any corridor that was not on existing highways will be set aside,” TxDOT executive director Amadeo Saenz said. “It will not move forward. It’s out of the mix.”
The decision was based on approximately 28,000 comments received from the 47 public hearings and 12 town hall meetings along the route, where residents showed strong opposition to the project.
“A lot of the comments were, in essence, ‘We don’t want you; we don’t want the TTC; we don’t want you going across our farms,’” Saenz said. “A lot of people also said, ‘Why don’t you go out there and use existing corridors? You already expended them in some ways.’”
TxDOT’s change of plans means future proposals of the route will remain primarily along U.S. 59 and fork off U.S. 281, U.S. 77 and/or Texas 44 in the south, where many support the TTC.
In Houston, there is a possibility it will follow Loop 610 or the planned Grand Parkway, while proposed routes to the north and west of Houston have been permanently removed from the project.
“If you look at Austin County, U.S. 59 does not go through Austin County,” Saenz said. “The proposed route will be set aside. (Residents) don’t have to worry about that as far as the I-69 project is concerned.”
Even though TxDOT’s recent decision applies to the TTC/I-69 project, it does not eliminate the possibility of future projects to address growing transportation needs.
“I can’t say it’s never going to happen,” Saenz said. “Fifty years from now, someone may need to build a third loop around Houston or build another road.”
That is why some feel it is important for residents to “not let their guard down.”
“I’m cautiously optimistic,” Rep. Lois Kolkhorst said. “ We have to be sure when we talk about the loop around Houston. It’s a grey area, and we need to be careful about our options and how we’re going to make sure that it still doesn’t impact our district. I think we need to stay very cognizant that we are still going to have to look at issues on how to fund highways, and I’m still under the impression that Texas is rich enough to fund its own highways.”
“I believe that we still have to approach the 2009 legislative session to limit the tools that TxDOT has ready in terms of our roadways in Texas,” said Martha Estes, a member of Citizens for a Better Waller County who has been active in the anti-TTC effort.
“If it’s not I-69 or U.S. 59, then it’s whatever next road is proposed,” she said. “All of the grassroots people should not feel like we can rest easy if those tools are still there.”
Others say the change of plans does not remove other concerns they have about the project.
“It’s certainly a tremendous relief to the lives that were in the direct path of the corridor, but we think the ones along the I-35 corridor merits the same consideration,” said David Stall, cofounder of the anti-TTC group CorridorWatch.org.
“The biggest issue we have is this is not an honest reaction to public opinion,” he said. “It’s more of a reaction to political popularity and not to the responsible needs of the people. There are millions of people being thrown under the bus.”
Still, the decision is a victory to those in the rural areas.
“I’m super-duper proud of the people and the constituencies that came out and took the time to go to the town hall meetings and took the time to write letters,” Kolkhorst said.
“It’s a perfect example of the grassroots’ ability to engage their elected officials in their needs and desires,” Austin County Judge Carolyn Bilski said. “We as a local government have worked really hard in the proper channels to be our voice for our citizens and our residents, being respectful of the fact that we have transportation needs, but not at the expense of our historical sites and farms and ranches that have been in the families for more than a century and showing the respect for our drainage and wildlife concerns.”
“Nobody wanted it,” Sealy Mayor Nick Tirey said. “We didn’t want it cutting off our county. We were worried about our emergency services - what was going to happen and where we were going to be able to get through. Plus the fact that it was going to go through Frydek and homes that have been there for 100 years. We have to address our transportation needs. We know there’s something else that is going to be coming, but we avoided what we didn’t want.”
TxDOT said it will complete the Tier 1 Final Environmental Impact Statement and submit it to the Federal Highway Administration for approval.
“The final EIS, we’re probably looking at very late 2008 or early 2009,” Saenz said. “Then we’ll start looking at left or right of U.S. 59 and if it’s going to highway, truck lanes or rails. That will take another two or three years after that. It’ll be another three to fives years before we will have a final EIS for Tier 2.”
For more information about the proposed TTC projects, go to www.keeptexasmoving.com.
© 2008, The Sealey News www.sealynews.com
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